Star Wars Is A Terrible Example Of The Hero’s Journey

The Hero’s Journey is frequently illustrated using the example of Star Wars: A New Hope. A New Hope’s plot was based on the Hero’s Journey and follows the model closely, so you might think this is sensible at first glance. On closer examination, however, it turns out that this is the opposite of true. Being based so closely on the Hero’s Journey makes A New Hope a terrible example of the monomyth, and the hackneyed understanding of the Hero’s Journey that you get when you analyze Star Wars (and only Star Wars) to understand it is the reason why so many movies riffing on the Hero’s Journey are so godawful.

The important thing to understand about the Hero’s Journey is that it is an emotional journey. You can have that journey symbolized in the plot by also having a literal journey and that’s fine, but the actual heart of it is the character arc of your protagonist. Joseph Campbell names the steps of the journey after certain common symbols of it, but the symbol is not the story beat. For example, the Meeting With The Goddess is about the hero finding the thing they left home for, on the other side of the road of trials they undertook to get there, in the farthest depths of exotic otherworldliness as they will see in this particular story (sort of – that’s also kind of the Ultimate Boon, but Star Wars uses the two plot beats pretty much interchangeably, which is another reason why it’s a bad example of the Hero’s Journey). An actual goddess is not required. All that matters is that the hero is as far out of their comfort zone as they will ever get, and this meeting denotes the point from which they will begin their ascent back up to where they came from, now imbued with whatever power they derived from overcoming the trials of whatever strange circumstance they’ve been grappling with for the last quarter of the plot.

Star Wars literalizes this beat by having Luke meet Princess Leia at about the same time as he’s become a Death Star-storming space adventurer who doesn’t need Ben Kenobi’s direct guidance or Han Solo’s permission to be a hero, and that literalization is what makes it a terrible example. This strictly literal usage of Campbell’s symbolic reference to the moment of revelation is not only unnecessary, it can confuse people trying to understand the Hero’s Journey into thinking that the story beat here is literally “protagonist meets a powerful female of some sort.” So, a lot of people think that somewhere around the mid-point of the story the protagonist should have a moment with their love interest and that this should spur them on to action. That’s vaguely similar to what it actually represents, but only vaguely. And it’s not even a vital step of the journey! Campbell threw in a lot of common but not ubiquitous elements, because he was writing an anthropological work, not a storytelling guide. You don’t actually need a meeting with the goddess to tell a hero’s journey story at all.

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